Donkey, water buffalo and other unconventional ingredients have been found in almost two thirds of hamburgers and sausages tested in South Africa, a study released on Tuesday (February 27) showed.
The tests by the University of Stellenbosch were planned before a scandal broke out in Europe over horsemeat labeled as beef that raised concerns worldwide over the risks to human health from a complex and nebulous meat supply chain.
Soya, donkey, goat, water buffalo and plant material were found in up to 68 percent of the 139 minced meats, burger patties, delicatessen meats, sausages and dried meats tested by the university. The items were not listed as ingredients.
Pork and chicken were the most common fillers found in products that were not supposed to contain them, according to the study that used DNA testing techniques and was published in the journal Food Control.
"Our study confirms that the mislabeling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food labeling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts," co-author Louw Hoffman of the university's Department of Animal Sciences, said in a statement.
Pretoria butcher Riaan Ferreira says he is not surprised and that vendors are constantly trying to palm off cheaper unconventional meat on him.
"I came to hear of it probably within the last 2 or 3 years and, and it has been proven. I mean, you can pick up the phone any day and you get offered whatever from water buffalo, to goat, to elephant, to whatever from zebra even. Every day. You get it offered on the telephone. And the problem is, it's so much cheaper than, than beef that guys are putting it in their products to maximize profit at the end of the day," Ferreira said.
His establishment which specializes in game meat but also sells beef and pork doesn't need to mix the product with donkey or water buffalo because it caters for a wealthier clientele.
But Ferreira said that substitution makes economic sense in less wealthy areas.
"If you can buy meat for, for anything from 10 to 20 Rand ($1 or $2) why are you going to pay 36 Rand if you can substitute it with the same thing, or basically the same thing? You won't know the difference between water buffalo and beef if you put it in your product. The consumer on the outside wouldn't know," he said.
The news has left consumers shocked.
"It's very disturbing to hear. I am a meat eater and I am scared to buy from butchers because of these allegations," said Pretoria resident Sam Omar.
"I hate the meat of donkeys or whatever. I don't even eat pork so now how will I know if there is pork in the mince or 'worst'. So, I don't know, people, I think people are going to stop eating meat," said Rina Venter, another consumer in Pretoria.
The discovery of pork in meat labeled as beef has also disturbed religious communities such as the Muslims in South Africa for whom eating pork and donkey is forbidden.
Stellenbosch researcher Hoffman is also concerned about where the contaminating meat is coming from and why the health authorities have not stopped them from entering the food chain. Water buffalo is not indigenous to the African continent whilst it is prevalent in South East Asia.
"What worries me about the donkey though, is that there are no abattoirs registered to slaughter donkey. However, the function of a registered abattoir is that government has health inspectors there that ensure the meat is safe that enters the food chain and the implication of this would be that that donkey came in via the back door as it was and may have contained a disease , and that is what is worrying about the donkey," said Hoffman.
No similar discoveries had been made over the past two years, when DNA testing became more widely used in South Africa.
Stricter food labeling laws came into effect in the continent's largest economy in March last year, with mandatory information required on content, country of origin and allergens.